Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: advent, christmas, isaiah 9:1-7, peace, Peace on earth, prince of peace, shalom
Peace on Earth. This is a nice thought, but it is also a thought few of us actually take seriously. It is idealistic, not realistic. It is a nice sentiment, but it is not possible…or so we often think. Our world is full strife and conflict. Right now, our country is struggling to hold it together over racial tension. Violence, mistrust, anger, and fear are spreading like wildfire. Last week, on the same day the Christmas tree was lit in Rockefeller Center, riots broke out in protest of the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer that choked a man to death. We continue to hear reports about beheadings and public executions at the hands of ISIS. It is hard to imagine peace on earth right now. The same was true 2800 years ago, yet the prophet Isaiah wrote the following promise in a flash of inspiration. This is a revelation of a better world, hope for a better future, and it would become the center of messianic longing for the remnant of Israel:
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
2 The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
3 You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
4 For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
5 Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.”
This promise was originally received in a time of great strife, instability, and anxiety. King after king in Judah led the people further away from God and into idolatry. Threatened with invasion from both Israel and Syria, Ahaz King of Judah reached out to the Assyrian Empire for help. He could have trusted God for help, but he went against the advice of the prophet. Assyria is the regional empire in whose shadow these small nations dwell under constant threat of invasion, annihilation, or annexation. This is a bit like a mouse asking the cat to help resolve a conflict with another mouse. Now, prompted by the invitation to intervene, Assyrian invasion of Judah is eminent. As Isaiah predicted, Assyria assists in solving the present crisis only to replace it with another: the chances of being wiped out by the Assyrian war machine are almost certain. People are afraid. There is conflict and war all around them. This passage is God’s promise in the midst of this horrible situation. God is in control. Destruction is coming, but God still has a plan. The promise is a coming “messiah,” a deliverer that will set wrongs to right and bring lasting and true peace. At first, people assumed this anointed ruler was the young king Hezekiah. Long after Hezekiah’s death however, a remnant of God’s people longed for someone who would fulfill this promise completely. Even with this expectation, I am not sure anyone anticipated Jesus Christ. This passage was famously and masterfully incorporated into Handel’s Messiah, one of the most moving pieces of music in history. Jesus is the “prince of peace” on a level that no one saw coming.
This is a promise of peace beyond human ability. The theme of this section of Isaiah’s oracles is that every human solution to the nation’s problems will fail. Their demise is the vehicle that will take them to a place of realization that only God can be trusted. God’s revelation of light has come to those walking in great darkness. It is when there seems to be no hope that God’s hope is most evident. When Ahaz tried to trust in political alliances and military might, he ended up making a bigger mess of the situation. God’s people have turned away from Him to covenant with pagan nations and trust in their strength, and they will reap the destruction they sowed. The calamity is not the end of the story, but a chance for God to use the pain as a powerful tutor. The promise of the Messiah does not come to a proud nation glorifying in its strength, but to a beaten nation, one tied in the furnace of affliction. No, the darker the days, the brighter the flame of the dawn! The mention of Midian’s defeat is a reference to the story of Gideon, a story that underscores God’s strength and human weakness. God eliminated any cause for Gideon or his fighters to have confidence in human strength by dramatically reducing their number to 300 in a conflict against thousands. God ensured that everyone would know the victory was His alone. Where Judah has presently arrived in crisis because of their trust in human systems, alliances, and power – this reference is indicting. They have led themselves into darkness, but God will lead them out of it. The truth is that God is a better savior than we can be sinners, and He is better and finding us than we are at losing our way. We can continue in rebellion, but not without great effort and determined resistance to the One who seeks to re-write our tragic story. God is interested in bringing us something that we cannot achieve through human effort.
This is also a promise of peace beyond human imagination. The prophet uses the symbols of the warrior’s boots and the bloody garments to represent warfare. The rhythmic sound of marching boots is a powerful symbol of the noise of battle, while the bloody garments are a symbol for the pain and destruction left in the wake of war. The poem does not describe victory in terms of one combatant overcoming his opponent, but the actual end of conflict. The very implements of war will be burned up. For this coming king, peace is not realized through conquest but through the end of warfare. The destruction brought by war will itself be destroyed. This prince is not a fierce warrior, but a little child. A child appears insignificant and weak, but with God this weakness can be strength. His rule is not established in military conquest but in God’s power. This is not the power of the sword; it is the power over the hearts of humanity. He reigns over a people transformed through their obedience to God’s will. It is God’s Kingdom, and it will endure forever. There is something unspeakably beautiful in the picture that Isaiah paints if you have eyes to see it. This is a world at peace, a moral order, held together not by force or the threat of force but by love. He is describing the Kingdom of God, where God’s will is established on earth as it is in heaven. This cannot be achieved by political systems, though politics are not irrelevant. It cannot be achieved through social work or through humanitarian aid projects. Human civilization will not climb to this lofty reality through technological advancement. Organized religion cannot establish it through its programs. This kind of peace, what the Hebrews called shalom, is almost a dream. This peace is only possible when people surrender their tools, their minds, and their wills to the Kingdom of God. This king of peace is different than the warmongering empire builders and political connivers of Isaiah’s day (and our own!). He is the one who establishes peace, not just advocates for it.
Human kingdoms are often established in tyranny and conquest, upheaval and rebellion. The foundation of God’s Kingdom is justice and righteousness. This was such a difficult thing even for the disciples to understand. They were still looking at Jesus like a powerful conqueror all the way up until the cross. It was only after the resurrection that the nature of God’s Kingdom and the depth of the peace that Jesus was to establish became clear. This Advent season, walk toward peace. Allow God’s Spirit to help you imagine a better world, then invite God’s Spirit to help you live into that vision.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Artist at Work, barnabas, become yourself, Imago Dei, missio dei
The first weekend of November, Echo spent some time retreating with the idea that we were made in the Image of God. We reflect something of his essence and nature by virtue of our creation. This image has been marred and obscured by our selfishness and our broken human condition, but it is there nonetheless as a stamp on our hearts, the fingerprints of our artistic creator. God can see in us not only who we were and who we are, but also who we can become with His help. You know who you are; you know where you have been and what you have done. But only God knows who you can become; what you are capable of. Ephesians 2:10 – “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” You are God’s work of art, and you are becoming an artist at work. God wants to express his beauty in this world through you. You are the canvas on which he will paint a better future.
Saturday night brought us into the story of an unsung hero of the New Testament narrative: Barnabas.
Barnabas is often thought of as a supporting character, if the book of Acts were made into a movie, he would not recieve top billing. Still, he is an essential part of the story. We are introduced to Barnabas first in Acts 9:19-31. Barnabas took a chance on Paul, choosing to see who he could be and not only who he had been. This is one of the most powerful decisions in history. Barnabas did what God does: he made a broken person his personal project. He poured into Paul, he taught, mentored, modeled, and instructed him. This was the disposition of Barnabas toward everyone. The other disciples were afraid. Paul (Saul) had done some terrible things. Barnabas wasn’t going to be put off by what Paul had done, he had the ability to see what Paul could do. This is what is so powerful about Barnabas – he is someone that embraces his identity so fully and so completely he becomes a work of art and an artist at work. If you asked him about it, he would just say: “It’s what I do. I believe in people. I help them find their way. I’m a fixer.” Barnabas is a builder, no less than Nehemiah. Barnabas is a composer, no less than David with his harp. Barnabas is a creator, no less than the finest of craftsmen. Embracing your unique identity and living into your unique story is such a huge part of what it means to be creative and to be a creator. The world is changed when people embrace this. Do what you were born to do, do it well, and do it with passion and purpose. Not everyone is called to be a missionary. Not everyone is called to be a preacher. But everyone is created as a beautiful, living, breathing, screaming work of art to go and be an artist at work creating and building and doing good.
It starts when we allow ourselves to dream. Imagination is the playground of God. Your internal world orders and informs your external world. First we dream and then we act. First we think, then we create. It starts when you allow yourself to believe in the invisible. See past the evident, see past the obvious, allow God to show you the possibility of what isn’t there. Living with mission always starts with learning to see through the eyes of Jesus. You need to learn to see the possibility in the world around you. You need to learn to see the potential in the people around you. There is so much darkness and brokenness and death in our world. There is so much pain, hurt, and suffering. These are obvious. Learn to see where God is at work, where God wants to be at work. Learn to see, like Barnabas, when no one else can see, the story of life and hope weaving into the pages of pain and suffering. This involves the imagination and it involves faith. A brilliant college professor once beautifully corrected me. He told me I spent too much time reading the wrong books. My reading was largely in the pursuit of information. He told me that what I needed was to find inspiration, not only more information. I needed to grow in my imagination, not only in my intellect. Intellect without imagination leaves you hopeless and detached, you understand what is broken but you cannot dream or envision a better world or a better story. We have much to learn from Barnabas here. What Barnabas did was change the narrative of Paul’s life. Look at the contrast between v. 21 and v. 27.
21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (Acts 9:21)
27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. (Acts 9:27)
Paul had been defined by what he had done, by who he had been. The story being told was the story of his darkest moments and the story of his failures. People looked at him through the lens of brokenness and dysfunction. Barnabas told a different story. He changed the narrative. He told the story of Paul’s encounter with Jesus, of the transformation that had begun in his life. He told the story of hope, and of a journey toward a better future. This is unspeakably powerful. When someone chooses to believe in you like this, it can change everything. He is a hero that we should get to know. I want to imagine like Barnabas. I want to dream of a better world. I want to believe in people. I want to believe that with Jesus in the story, the narrative can change.
The bottom line is this: God wants to imagine and create a better a future through you. There is hope for your tribe, for your neighborhood, and for your city because you are in it. You are the agents of God’s plan. This happens when you become yourself and then you unleash the creative force inside you. Live into the story of the Imago Dei. You are a work of art in the hands of God, and he wants to unleash you as an artist at work. I am talking about your life being an expression of the beauty of God’s Image. Nothing is more powerful to change and to restore and to create than a person doing exactly what they were born to do. It is like seeing an artist at work. It isn’t what talents, gifts, and strengths are given to an individual, but what that individual does with whatever material they have been given. That is what makes someone an artist. What can you create with the material God has given you? God’s vision to transform the world comes through you. You can be a chef. You can be a designer. You can be dancer. You can be a hydratic geologist. What you do is nearly as important as who you are. You are an expression of God’s design. You and your community of faith are to image God into this world. Create the future that you see through the eyes of God. Bring the possibility and the potential that God’s Spirit breathes into you from imagination and into reality. Image the unseen. Think about how the world would be different if each of us left every person we ever met better than we found them. Go and enjoy life. Go and do something you love, because people who enjoy life make life more enjoyable for others. Being creative means bringing meaning into every moment. It means living fully alive. Grow in curiosity, imagination, creativity, and courage.
Someone once described the Imago Dei in terms of function like an angled mirror. We are to reflect the glory of God, the will of God, the beauty of God out into the world. We bear the Image of God, so we are the Mission of God. You are blessed to be a blessing. You are a work of art, and an artist at work. We are entrusted with both promise and purpose, all for the glory of the Beautiful One. We are called to become someone beautiful, build something beautiful, for the glory of the beautiful one.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: Artist at Work, Ephesians 2:10, Imago Dei, Poiema, Work of Art, Youth Retreat
Echo’s Fall Retreat theme was Imago Dei, a Latin phrase that means “the image of God.” The primeval prologue of Genesis includes thought about God’s creation of humanity: “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” This is a profound truth – human beings were created in the image of God, to bear the likeness of God and share in something of the essence of their divine creator. What does this mean? Sometimes this seems pretty far from the truth. War, poverty, injustice, bullies, and pride – these things seem pretty terrible. Yet everyone has a faint idea of the way it should be even if we have never seen this perfection. It makes you wonder what God had in mind originally. This makes me wonder: does God see something about us that we struggle to recognize?
God can see in us not only who we were and who we are, but also who we can become with His help. You know who you are; you know where you have been and what you have done. But only God knows who you can become and what you are capable of. We explored this concept throughout the weekend, rooted in the extraordinary words of Paul to the Ephesians. Ephesians 2:10 – “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” You are God’s work of art, and you are becoming an artist at work. God wants to express his beauty in this world through you. You are the canvas on which he will paint a better future.
Friday night we explored the story of Moses’ invitation to join God in the work of rescuing the captive Israelites from Egypt in Exodus 3. Moses had a very complicated and difficult life story. He is certainly not a stranger to the brokenness of humanity. He has been through some dramatic and traumatic events in his life. In his encounter with God, he is invited to be someone he never thought he could be. He is invited to do something far beyond his wildest dreams. This moment changes everything about the way Moses sees himself, God, and the world. The essence of what God tells Moses is this: God sees the suffering. God is concerned about the suffering. God has a plan to heal and restore, and that plan is you.
Moses’ question to God is “Who am I, that I should do this?” That is a very important question. Who is Moses? His story is complicated. He is not exactly a “functional and whole” individual; Moses is someone with baggage. God wants him to save an oppressed people group, but he is an 80-year-old abandoned orphan raised by oppressors that is guilty of murder and a fugitive from justice. Everyone, including Moses, has counted him out for the race toward anything heroic or remarkable. Moses asks “Who am I…” and God answers: “I AM.” Moses is concerned with his problems and his past. Moses keeps telling God that he is less…God is inviting Moses to become MORE. God was unconcerned about his past. He was unconcerned about his faults, failures, and deficiencies. God doesn’t care about those things. In the eyes of God, he sees not the problem but the potential. He sees not just who you are and who you have been, but who you could be with his help. He can see the treasure in the trash. He can see the beauty in what is broken. All of us have some story, some things in our past that we can use to disqualify ourselves from greatness. We are all imperfect and broken. But God is an artist. He is a restorer. He is truly amazing in his ability to bring life out of death. This is what he does! This is who He is! He asks Moses to trust HIM. Trust in God, not yourself. You know who you are; you know where you have been and what you have done. But only God knows who you can become and what you are capable of with His help. God can see in you the potential, the beauty, and the remarkable! The way a painter brings color to her canvas, a dancer choreographs his routine, a potter guides the clay – this is the same way God wants to work with you. You are the medium for the Greatest Creative Force in existence. You are what God uses to create art. You are where he does his best work. Your life is what God is working on restoring, perfecting, and creating. Your story is the book he is writing. You are the canvas that God paints upon. You are his project. He wants to do this with all of creation, but it starts with you. Your surrendered life is a work of art in the hands of a masterful artist.
Friday night ended with this invitation, extended to us by virtue of our creation: Become someone beautiful. It is in you, the fingerprint of God – you were created in His image. Let your life be a work of art. Let your life be the canvas on which God paints, the clay that God molds with intention and design.
This is the video that set the tone for the weekend. The voice is an artistic preacher named Erwin MacManus, author of the book The Artisan Soul. The clips used are all the work of the amazing artists in the Vimeo community. The music is by Jonsi from the album We Bought a Zoo.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: doubt, Holy Spirit, Jesus, paraclete, questions, relational truth, relativism, spirit of truth, truth
What is Truth? Confused and perplexed by the case of Jesus, Pontius Pilate ends his conversation with a great question: “What is Truth?” This question is still being asked today. Philosophers have debated it; religion has made claims about it; and it seems like cultural attitudes about truth are always shifting. The word that Pilate uses is the Greek word Aletheia. It is a word with rich meaning. It does mean truth, but it carries the idea of sincerity, actuality, and reality. It refers to what actually is. Is there something called “truth” that is defined as “that which corresponds to reality,” and if so, what does it mean for you and I? Truth is hard to define, especially now in the postmodern world. Some people think truth is impossible to define or know. Jesus called himself “the Truth” and taught that his enemy was the “father of lies.” This is one of the most essential questions for each of us to settle, because what you believe determines how you behave. Echo HIgh School had a four week conversation exploring the concept of truth, especially the nature of the spiritual truth in the teaching of Jesus.
John 14:15-27 –
15 “If you love me, keep my commands. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[a] in you. 18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
22 Then Judas (not Judas Iscariot) said, “But, Lord, why do you intend to show yourself to us and not to the world?”
23 Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. 24 Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me.
25 “All this I have spoken while still with you. 26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
Of all the gospel writers, John explores the teaching of Jesus on truth most often and most elegantly. Here, Jesus promises to his disciples that the Parakletos will be with them after he is gone. He is an ally, an advocate. He is literally “someone called in,” to help and to heal and to teach. Jesus called Him (or it (pneuma), or her (ruach)) the “Spirit of Truth.” He will guide us into truth, he will continue the process where God’s truth becomes known to humanity, something we call “revelation.” This passage has some pretty cool implications:
- Spiritual Truth can be questioned freely because it is durable. Sometimes people treat “the truth” like it is made of glass. It is very fragile, so you should handle it with care. They limit their exposure to other points of view for this reason. This attitude is what gives Thomas, the questioner in this passage a negative reputation. He has the nickname “doubting Thomas.” I think it is unfair, and more to the point I think it dangerous. Look at how he responded to the cryptic teaching of Jesus in John 14:1-17. There is something remarkable about Thomas – he is not afraid to give a truthful answer: “I don’t understand.” At this moment, Jesus is looking at a lot of confused faces. The other guys have no idea what Jesus is saying either, but they aren’t the type that will risk the question. They care far too much about what other people think. There was one among them who could never say that he understood what he did not understand, and that was Thomas. He expresses his doubt and his failure to understand, and the wonderful thing is the question of an honest man provokes one of the greatest sayings of Jesus ever. He has honest questions and is brave enough to ask them. Never be ashamed of having questions or admitting you do not understand something. God is not afraid of your questions, so Echo will always be a place that is open and honest about your questions. That means we are committed to giving honest answers even when they aren’t simple, and that no question is ever “out of bounds.” We are not afraid of doubt. Doubt is often the invitation to explore an issue more honestly and to understand an issue more thoroughly. Doubt often leads to deeper and more complete truth.
- Spiritual Truth should be held humbly because it is progressive. This is a VERY important passage when it comes to understanding Jesus’ view of truth. John 16:12-15 -12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”
Truth is progressive. Jesus had more to reveal, revelation was not over. There is more to learn about God, there is more to know about Christ. This is often misunderstood and the cause of much trouble in faith. Often, people think of Christianity as something that was established once finally and perfectly, and that the only task for the present is to look carefully at what Jesus did and said in the past and that should give us all we need going forward. I am not sure this works. Jesus did not give a perfect and complete revelation about God’s kingdom to the disciples. He could not have. Revelation is progressive, and a person can only be taught what they are able to understand. God has always worked this way: he meets people within the limits of their understanding and sometimes within the shortcomings of their culture. This means that the Christian faith (and theology) must be alive, it cannot be the static and wooden practice of studying the past saying of a long dead teacher. It needs to be more than that. It is not only concerned with what God said and what God revealed in the past, but it must also be concerned with what God is doing and what God is saying and revealing now and even tomorrow. This is SO important for the way we practice our faith. It is a mistake to think of faith only in terms of ancient patters and established “truth.” Our faith needs to be alive; it needs to be able to grow. Our world has fallen victim to the opposite: to a dead and lifeless religion that is solely concerned with the past and pays no attention to the pressing matters of the present and the future. Jesus describes here the possibility of a faith that evolves and grows to face the challenges of new generations and the complications of the advancing human story. How does this happen, since Jesus is no longer with us? The accounts of those that knew him are left behind, but they are done. There are not going to be any new discoveries about Jesus unearthed in a cave somewhere. Jesus gives us the answer: He is gone, but he did not leave his followers alone. He gave his followers the Holy Spirit; the “Spirit of Truth.” The word we use to talk about how the Spirit brings God’s truth to us is called “revelation.” It is like the lights come on. This is a glorious promise if you can understand it and grasp it! This should help us deal with passages from the Bible that trouble us or offend our conscience. There are many times when the Bible seems archaic in its virtues and even inferior in its ethic compared to the modern world. Please understand me, I think that scripture has much to teach our culture about morality and ethics and the heart of God. I think it is the supreme revelation of God’s character and nature. However, there are times where what God revealed to ancient people in the context of their ancient culture seems backwards and inferior compared to what we know today. This is fine if you understand that God cannot take humanity from the start to the finish in one step. God’s goal is to advance us as a culture one step closer to the ideal of His Kingdom, and sometimes a step in the right direction doesn’t seem like it is going far enough if you are already advanced past that position. However, if you were the one on the other side it might truly be as far as your legs could reach. God needs to get people moving in the right direction, even if it is not all the way down the road. God is a patient teacher in this regard. This also means that God is not done yet helping us step toward his ideal. When we look into the ancient truth of scripture, sometimes we need to discern the direction God was having humanity move to know how to continue down the road, especially when applying the text woodenly as it is written will not do. There is progress in terms of redemptive movement. Revelation continues because Jesus is alive and His Spirit continues to work within us guiding us into His truth.
- Spiritual Truth can be known relationally because it is personal. Here is the most important thing to understand when it comes to spiritual truth. You do not relate to spiritual truth like science relates to a bar of iron: as a subject relates to an object. Spiritual truth is not very “objective.” It is subjective, because behind spiritual truth is a person. We should not study God like we study things in a laboratory, reducing him to a list of attributes, axioms, facts, and figures. We study God like we get to know a friend. This is how scripture is to be read. You are reading stories, songs, and personal letters. You are not reading a book full of facts about God. These stories, songs, letters and such invite us to experience God in a similar way that the authors of these works experienced God. We should not read scripture or come to church like a detached physicist listening to a lecture, but like a castaway on deserted island with a letter from his beloved. There is so much talk in defense of “absolute truth” from people making claims about God, but I wonder if they are not missing the point. I understand their fear: they fear that with the loss of the concept of absolute truth comes moral relativism and a lack of spiritual conviction. However, their argument might not be accomplishing their goal. We have to remember that when we are dealing with Spiritual Truth, the ultimate truth is not an objective principle but a person. This person is one of such splendor, power, wonder, beauty, and glory that to know Him is to love Him, worship Him, enjoy Him and seek to please Him with everything. Jesus didn’t reveal to his disciples the nature of propositional truth; he invited them to learn that He is “the way, the truth, and the life.” Reducing such a person to a list of facts and attributes is missing the truth by a wide margin. You can only really know the truth about God by experiencing Him, the same way you can only really know music once you have heard it. Music, like God, is more than intellectual comprehension; it is also emotional understanding.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: affluenza, clutter, firstworldproblems, focus, gratitude, Materialism, simplicity, waste
Echo High School’s conversation about first world problems continued to cover some strange cultural territory. In December 2013, a District Judge sentenced a North Texas teenager to 10 years probation for drunk driving and killing four pedestrians and injuring eleven. This person killed four human beings and got off with rehab and probation. Why? His attorneys successfully argued that the teen suffered from affluenza and needed rehabilitation, and not prison. The defendant was witnessed on surveillance video stealing beer from a store, driving with seven passengers in his father’s Ford F-350, speeding (70 MPH in a 40 MPH zone), and had a blood alcohol content of .24%, three times the legal limit for an adult in Texas, when he was tested 3 hours after the accident. Traces of Valium were also in his system. A psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege. The rehabilitation facility cost Texas taxpayers roughly $700 a day. This entire story is INSANE, but it is true. Affluenza might be the king of all “first world problems.” Affluenza is a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.
Our relationship with stuff is silly. We worry about the model of our phone or the vintage of our laptop computers. We look at a closet full of clothes and declare: “I have nothing to wear.” We are addicted to more, and we don’t really have any plans to change. This is a major issue. Our consumption is off the charts. Our culture is one of consumerism. How can we have so much, yet feel as if we have so little? This is one of the major causes of AFFLUENZA – the stimulation of artificial needs. We forget how rich we are because we are a part of a system that constantly tells us we do not have. If we don’t have it, our lives are spent trying to get it. When we do get it, we don’t own it as much as it owns us. We measure “economic success” based on the Gross Domestic Product, or Gross National Product. The funny thing is, this might be the wrong measure. Think about a situation like divorce. A couple spends high amounts of money on legal services, then they split into two households and spending goes way up. This boosts the GDP, but does it indicate cultural progress or decline? If someone gets cancer, or there is an oil spill, or a forest was cut down for lumber…all of these things make the GDP rise but they might actually represent the decline of our culture not progress. No one thinks that family breakdown is good for our culture, but the GDP loves it. This is all to say that the answer for our deep spiritual needs is not going to be found in material goods.
What are the signs of Affluenza?
- CLUTTER - Too much stuff is not a good thing. We are the type that stockpile and hoard and accumulate, wanting what others have, always seeking more. Because of this, our calendars, our rooms, our garages, and our lives are full of clutter. Clutter is not just all the stuff that we keep around that rarely gets used. It is also the sense of urgency and the lack of focus and purpose with which we live. This is a symptom of not truly knowing what you need and what you want out of life. It is a symptom of living without laser focus and disciplined simplicity. It is difficult to filter out the ever-escalating demands for faster . . . newer . . . flashier . . . more. What we have to see is that this mentality is psychotic in that it has lost all touch with reality: we crave things we neither need nor enjoy. We buy things we do not need to impress people we do not like. Twice a year people in our neighborhood have a massive event where all the excess stuff in the community gets shuffled around to provide us with more money to buy more stuff. The idea of dependence on God should challenge our materialism and move us toward simplicity. Simplicity is a spiritual discipline that gives us needed perspective on our materialistic world. It allows us to see the provision of God as a gift that is not ours to keep and can be freely shared with others. It is an inward reality that leads to an outward expression. It is more than just getting rid of stuff – it is an inner attitude of the heart that acknowledges (1) What we have we received as a gift of God, (2) What we need God will care for, and (3) What we have is available to others. Simplicity is basically this: Seek first the Kingdom of God.
- WASTE - We use it and then throw it away. Much of our stuff is “designed for the dumpster.” Marketers use fancy terms like “planned obsolescence” to disguise their intention. They cannot have you truly satisfied by their product because you will never buy another one. Nothing is designed to last forever. Many things, like cell phones and electronics, are actually designed to fall apart or break down after a certain point. Other things are perfectly fine, but they convince you through marketing that they are out of style and need to be replaced. So we end up buying a new car every year, replacing our wardrobe with the latest fashions, and signing up for another contract with the phone company to get the “free” phone. What happens to our old stuff? It gets trashed. An attitude of waste comes from the assumption that the world exists for you, not the other way around. Americans consume at staggering rates. Each of us uses up 20 tons of basic raw materials annually. The idea that the “good life” means having what I want when I want it and being able to throw it away wastefully when I’m done with it is not sustainable. This is a value choice that means for me to enjoy life others must not. For me to have more, others must have less. Behind this behavior is bad theology. I see this attitude all the time in the church: basically that the earth is doomed so we should use it up without concern. I don’t see this in scripture. In scripture, I see God entrusting the care of this earth and its resources to people as he invites them to partner with him in realizing his vision for the world. The initial instructions that God gave to humanity were to care for the earth. The first marching orders for God’s Kingdom included the idea of being stewards of creation. Our wasteful attitude is a direct violation of that.
- Dissatisfaction. You cannot possibly be thankful and content if you are convinced that you deserve more than you are getting! We want far more than we need. We want a good number more things than we need and even more than we can actually use. We’re satisfied. We’re grateful. We’re content with our PS3, until one day we play hear about someone else’s PS4. Then we’re not content anymore, and we go back to our old and busted and ancient game system. We’re satisfied with our accomplishments until we see someone who has accomplished more, and we then we don’t feel very good. The Bible understands this tendency in our hearts. Paul wrote to his protégé, a young pastor named Timothy, trying to protect his heart from this lie of lack. Some false teachers at the time had fallen into the trap, and they began twisting God’s word to support their lifestyle of greed and exploitation. 1 Timothy 6:6 – “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” Paul continues and tells Timothy to FLEE from all this stuff about lack and the pursuit of more! FLEE – run, go the other way, stay away from it, try to escape. We tend to do just the opposite and play right into the other story, the story of lack. And because of this we miss out on the story of contentment. The road out of this dark place is through a simple prayer: THANKS. “Thanks” shifts your perspective to what you have already received. It shifts your focus to the blessing, wealth, health, love, mercy, and favor that you are already experiencing. It gets your eyes off of what you lack and puts them on the abundance that you have. It stops envy, comparison, and malcontent from ensnaring your heart. It is a very simple choice: I will choose to be happy with what I already have.
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: firstworldproblems, health, nutrition, spirituality, temperance
This is a long overdue blog update! I wanted to post some thoughts from the Echo High School series in the Spring of 2014. We called the series #firstworldproblems. This hashtag started appearing a few years back whenever someone from our over-fed, over-protected, and under-challenged culture was complaining about something silly. We are all guilty of it at one time or another. This was a series about the silly obsessions and self-absorption of our culture.
On this theme, I want to talk about relatively new problem for our world: for the first time ever, the number of overweight people is greater than the number of under-weight people globally. You would think that means that people are healthier than ever, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Many of these people are overweight but they are in fact under-nourished. They are deficient in essential vitamins and other nutritional measures. This is because of the rise in calorie-rich but nutrient-poor processed foods that have become a major part of the human diet, especially in developed parts of the world. Don’t dismiss me as a fitness and diet fanatic, I am FAR from that. This is not just a physical issue. This issue reflects attitudes that have spiritual roots, and it is very important for us to talk about. We eat too much of the wrong stuff. We eat too little of the right stuff. Taken together, these generalities point to a spiritual problem. We have issues with temperance.
- This is an issue of insensitivity. The hard truth about this is that you don’t often hear messages about this for several reasons. One reason is that many preachers feel hypocritical talking about gluttony and such, so they avoid it. Another reason is that we have done a great job insulating ourselves from this issue because of how we compartmentalize our lives. “This is not spiritual, it is just physical. My physical health doesn’t have anything to do with my moral center or my spiritual life…” Yet we are wrong. This issue is spiritual. Our problems with food have spiritual roots. On one hand, we eat far more than our fair share of the food in this world with little regard for those that go hungry. When we eat and are satisfied, it should remind us that so many people go to bed hungry in our backyard and across the world. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to pray not for “my daily bread” but for “our daily bread.” This is not an accident. We really do get a great deal more than “daily bread.” This is not self-preservation or survival, but community. It begs the question: how does hunger exist in a world of plenty? In both the Old and New Testaments hunger is linked with those who have been forced by societal conditions into a marginal existence: the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the oppressed. These people are particularly vulnerable to hunger because of their poverty. Even in famine, all will suffer but the privileged will be able to buy food from another land. Those on the margins do not have the resources. In Israel care of the needy was not regarded as an act of voluntary benevolence. The poor were entitled to such benefits. Underlying this practice was the assumption that poverty and need were due to a breakdown in the equitable distribution of community resources or to a social status over which an individual had no control (like widows and orphans). Thus, the responsibility for action lay with the privileged rather than with the poor themselves. By contrast, in our society it is commonly assumed that the poor and the hungry of the world ought to bear the major burdens of bettering their own condition. This attitude is thoroughly American: “Let them pull themselves up! Let them work to make something of themselves!” Yet this attitude doesn’t seem very scriptural. What I am saying here is this is our problem to solve, because we are the privileged ones with more resources to manage. This is from Deuteronomy 15:
There will be no poor among you…if only you will obey the voice of the Lord your God…If there is among you a poor man, one of your brethren, in any of your towns within your land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his need… You shall give to him freely, and your heart shall not be grudging… For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore, I command you, You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor…
- This is an issue of over-Indulgence – Behind this reality is an inability to tell ourselves “no.” Paul employs a curious phrase in Philippians 3:17-21 – “Their god is their stomach.” This means they live for worldly pleasures. We all know how our hungers and passions demand satisfaction, so we jump into action. This carnal way of life runs contrary to the ways of God’s Kingdom. Our culture has taken this to extremes. Everything in our culture is about having, consuming, and showing. Fast cars, nice stuff, gadgets, gizmos, meals, luxury, and comfort. Good enough is never good enough. Adequate is never adequate. Temperance is a lost virtue. We don’t really know how to “go the right length and no further” in our culture that values extremes. This is a moral issue, not just a health issue. Pleasure is not bad, but when pleasure and comfort come before nourishment we are in for some trouble. Our problem with over-indulging comes from our instinct to hoard. Over eating is a way of storing up fat cells for use later. We consume more calories than we need to live so when famine or hardship strikes, we will have some fat reserves to live off of. The problem is that for many of us, our lives are far too comfortable and protected from such calamities. The last time we skipped a meal was because we were too busy, not because we couldn’t afford food. When we read in scripture the commandments about the vulnerable poor, we depersonalize them and ignore them because we cannot identify with their plight of the truly poor. Especially in tough times, our instinct moves to selfishness. The way of God’s Kingdom is to resist the instinct to hoard and choose generosity instead. The provision of God might not be lacking in quantity, but in distribution. Maybe God has given you more than enough so you can give to those with less than enough? I should be concerned not only with my needs, but with the needs of all. Our culture of over-indulgence is far off the mark.
Related to the malnutrition of the over-weight is our choice of fast and processed food. Wanting our food “fast” is symptomatic of other problems in our culture, and it also has spiritual implications. We want our food fast; we want it convenient. I have heard these same demands about church as long as I have been attending. People want things on their schedule, the way they like it. We carry over our consumeristic and intemperate attitudes into the way we interact with our spiritual leaders. We want things that make us feel good instead of the things that will truly nourish us and feed us. We settle for flashy, for fast, for superficial instead of going deeper. Convenience should not be the determining factor when it comes to what we put into our bodies or our souls.
- This is an issue of imbalance – Eating is not a problem, and even eating plenty is not necessarily gluttony. The Bible balances feasting and fasting, there are appropriate times for both. Balance is the key. An occasional indulgence is even appropriate. The problem is when excess becomes every day! Our culture has no place for fasting, and it makes feasting irrelevant by turning every meal into an indulgence and every occasion into excess. We tend to go from one extreme to another. Wisdom is what is needed to know when fasting and feasting should interrupt our constant lifestyle of temperance. Please hear me: this is not a message about weight loss or vanity, but it is a message about knowing when enough is enough. It is crazy idea but it would change so much about our physical, emotional, and spiritual health: go the right length and no further. Have the right amount of fun. Eat until you are satisfied, and then stop. Have a treat once and a while. Learn the power of moderation and balance. This is what the virtue of temperance is all about: going the right length and no further. It is habitual moderation. Not just because it is good for your body but because it is good for your soul and even for our world. This virtue should be reflected in the way we use energy, the way we use money, the way we eat and drink and celebrate. Temperance is rooted in valuing eternal things over earthly things. Some people see God as the big killjoy in the sky, waiting to kill their fun and spoil the party. Other people treat food itself like the enemy, like we should eat beans and rice only and enjoy a dessert at our peril! Church history knows of monks and ascetics that abused their bodies and denied themselves anything good. These people have it wrong. Imagine there is a road with a ditch on either side. Temperance is the balance of driving down that road, avoiding the ditch on either side. Temperance is the ability to know when to abstain and when to participate. Balance is the key.
Filed under: Genesis | Tags: Forbidden Fruit, Genesis, Morality, myth, redeeming culture, science
Prompted by the soon released film Noah, Echo High School just finished a 4 week conversation on the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis, a section often referred to as the “primeval prologue.” The book of Genesis is well named. Genesis means “origin,” and it is a book about beginnings. It addresses questions about the origins of the universe, life, human culture, evil, pain, and suffering. This section of scripture is a lightning rod for interpretive differences and passionate debate, and I think all the attention might serve to confuse the intended message instead of clarifying it.
The powerful message of Genesis’ early chapters is often obscured by modern debates regarding issues the text does not address and questions the text cannot answer. It is common today to debate what the book has to say about the origin of matter in terms of science, cosmology, evolutionary biology, and so on. People try to make the primeval prologue of Genesis into an alternative theory of origins, and the debate about whether or not to take Genesis literally or whether evolution or creation is behind the complexity and uniqueness of human beings.
We might be guilty here of reading modern questions into an ancient context, and in doing so missing the point. One of the keys to interpreting scripture is to allow the Bible to say what it wants to say, not what we wish it said. We have to avoid the temptation to let questions the Bible cannot answer distract us from the questions it is answering. Genesis is not a book about biology or cosmology. It is a book about theology. The tragic reality for many people is that they will miss the theology of Genesis because they are forcing on the text their questions about origin of species and creation vs. evolution. We can’t afford to miss the point, because the point is too important to miss!
Genesis IS NOT – a science book or a history book in the modern sense. Forcing modern questions and modern categories on this ancient narrative is futile and might actually lead to missing the point. It cannot answer questions that were not being asked (or even imagined) by its original audience.
Genesis IS – a story, or a collection of stories. It is sometimes poetic, sometimes narrative, and sometimes parabolic. Genesis certainly communicates to its ancient audience in the language and style of other such stories from the ancient world, yet it is unique. I think the question of whether or not Genesis is “literal” is the wrong question. The question is whether or not Genesis is true, and that answer is yes. It is beautifully and wonderfully TRUE, in that it is jam-packed full of TRUTH. Yet it does not need to be literal to be true.
I think we obsess in excess over the issue of literal vs. symbolic, as if truth can only be communicated in objective, modern, non-fiction styles. I think the idea of anything being truly “objective” even in the modern world is also silly. Even documentaries and modern journalism betray their bias. This attitude also underestimates how narrative was used to communicate value and truth in the ancient world. God seems to be more concerned with the heart than with the head, and stories and songs are the language of the heart and so they make up much of the language of scripture. Scripture actually gives us an example about how story can communicate truth without being literal. Look at the parable Nathan employs when he confronts King David about his sin with Bathsheba in 2 Samuel 12:1-7.
The Lord sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. 2 The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, 3 but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
4 “Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
5 David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! 6 He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
7 Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!…”
What we have here is a story designed to communicate truth best received by the heart and not the head. Nathan has the unenviable task of confronting and correcting a king that though himself above the law. He doesn’t do this with direct, didactic communication style. Instead, he uses the power of story to communicate the truth of David’s sin in a powerful and disarming way. Is Nathan’s parable TRUE? Yes! It might not be literal, but it is true. The rich man is David, the sheep is Bathsheba, the poor man that was wronged and abused is Uriah. In this case, we have both the parabolic story and the more “historical” story of David’s sin against Bathsheba detailed in the preceding chapters. How would we make sense of the story if we only had the parabole form? Would we be debating what color the fleece of the lamb was, or what town the man was from, or who the guest was that required the meal? All these questions are irrelevant to the point of Nathan’s parable.
For people that cannot wrap their head around the magic fruit and the talking snake and the flaming swords of Genesis’ primeval prologue, at least don’t miss the point of these stories because the details distract you. The fantastic and mythic quality of the stories fits well with the other such stories circulating at the time these were originally told. The question remains: does the primeval prologue of Genesis belong to the genre of parable or theological story or should it be read more literally? I tend to lean toward the side of “parabolic” history for several reasons. The narrative itself seems to suggest it with poetic structures and symbolic names. Adam means something like “humanity.” Eve means something like “mother of all.” The trees seem like symbols. There are parallelisms and chiasmus and other forms of poetic structures throughout the narrative.
Whether you read them literally or not, the theological point doesn’t change. These stories were first told to answer the question: “Why are things the way they are?” Why are we filled with spiritual curiosity? Why do we look into the mysteries of the universe and wonder? Why do we long to be more than we are? Why do we crave to be connected to God? Why have we been cast out of Eden? These questions need to be answered whether you view these stories literally or not. Whether or not they are literal is actually not the most important issue. The most important issue is the theology of these stories, what do they teach us about the nature of humanity and our relation to God? How would the ancient audience have understood these stories? What story does the Primeval Prologue of Genesis tell? It tells a story of something beautifully made and tragically marred. A story of paradise created and paradise lost.
When the movie Noah comes out, maybe you should watch it with your teen and have a lively discussion on parable, truth, history, and ultimate origins.